When you think of Sony franchises, your mind likely first goes to action/platform games like God of War or Ratchet & Clank. Even when you think of racing games on Sony consoles, you'll likely conjure an image of Gran Turismo. All the while, sitting quietly in the wings isWipEout. The futuristic racing franchise all about speed and power has been quietly humming along for over a decade now, and suddenly it has burst onto the PS3 with a vengeance. With WipEout HD's gorgeous visuals, incredibly deep campaign and lag-free online play, this is one racing game that everyone needs to check out.
Fans of the series will likely feel instantly familiar with WipEout HD, and that is largely because all of the tracks have been culled from the last two PSP releases in the series, WipEout Pure and WipEout Pulse. This reuse of old content isn't a bad thing, though, as their new presentation on the big screen in high-def will make you marvel and just what wondrous creations they are. Tracks that already looked pretty darn good on Sony's handheld device really come to life here, and it's likely you'll experience more than a few crashes from spending too much time marveling at the scenery and not enough time concentrating on that sharp right-hand turn that suddenly gets thrown your way.
This well-received upgrading and newfound attention to detail isn't restricted to just the tracks, as the ships you command also look incredible. Each vehicle is rendered expertly, sleek and sexy, with each simply exuding attitude in its design. These beasts are intimidating in the best way, and there will likely be moments that it pains you they aren't real. Simply put, WipEout HD is absolutely gorgeous and easily one of the most visually impressive games I have seen in this generation, downloadable or otherwise.
Once you've stopped marveling at just good the game looks, it's time to jump headfirst into the experience. The new title features eight overarching states, each of which uses the grid progression system present in the PSP titles. Whenever you start a stage, you'll see a large cluster of hexagonal grids, with only the middle ones available. Once you complete whatever challenge lies in one grid, it unlocks all those adjacent to it, allowing you to branch out and find events best suited for your abilities. While you'll ultimately need to complete every event on the later stages in order to advance, you can at least cherry-pick your best events while you're starting out and focus on honing your skills and taking the gold. It's a nice little dose of freedom most racing games don't embrace, and being able to choose your own method of progression will help you compensate for your weaker events by allowing you to really nail your times and positions in your stronger ones.
As far as race modes themselves, there are a fair number of options to choose from. You are given the standard single race and tournament options where you take the field against seven other competitors, as well as the more time-sensitive speed lap and time trial events. Races against the field test both your piloting skills and your trigger finger, as each course features both speed boosts and weapons pick-ups. Missiles, plasma cannons, and shields are all yours for the taking, and weapons can even be absorbed to repair damage to your own ship. This is a particularly clever mechanic, as late-stage AI is incredibly aggressive even at the novice difficulty setting, and you'll need to carefully balance offense and defense in order to keep your ship intact while fighting through the pack. It's a beautiful bit of strategy that nicely balances what would otherwise be a racer where you simply hold down the accelerator and hope for the best.
In addition to these more standard modes, WipEout also features Zone, which is basically a test of survival. During one of these races, it's just you and the course, with your ship's speed steadily increasing the longer you survive. Your goal is to keep your vehicle from flying apart for as long as possible, which is none too easy once you start hitting the super-phantom and Zen speed classes. Zone is the epitome of white-knuckle driving and is almost guaranteed to get your adrenaline pumping.
Zone is also where you'll likely get the greatest appreciation for WipEout's soundtrack, which features the same driving techno music you've come to expect. In these races, the track morphs into a sort of giant mixing board, with the landscape changing color and the racetrack itself thumping along with the beat. I couldn't help but feel as I played that I had slipped into a game of Amplitude or Audiosurf, but the aesthetic was actually quite pleasing.
Sadly, one of my personal favorite race modes has been cut from this version of the game, with Eliminator nowhere to be seen. This mode, present on Pulse, set you on the course with seven other AI drivers and tasked you with using weapons to eliminate them all and be the last man standing. Unfortunately, it seems as though Sony wanted to put the emphasis back on racing and move combat to the backseat at the expense of what was a very enjoyable race type.
Unless you are an incredibly adept player, there will likely come a point where you hit a progress wall in the single-player experience and decide to migrate over to multiplayer for a while. There aren't a lot of multiplayer modes to go around (you're restricted to single races and tournaments), but what is there has been perfected, so you likely won't even notice the lack of variety. Online bouts are among the smoothest I have ever seen, and I never once ran into any lag whatsoever, even playing on a wireless connection with gamers from all across the globe. I kept waiting for a stutter or stammer, but none ever came; it was the personification of excellence.
I know I have been gushing a bit over this game, but honestly, it deserves it. Even though it's a truly incredible experience, it's still not perfect, but the little things don't bring it down. First, there's really little in the way of ship upgrades, with all vehicles being locked into the same performance parameters for the duration of the game. You do earn loyalty for using the same ship repeatedly, but the only reward for doing so is alternate skins that have no effect on performance. Also, as alluded to above, WipEout HD is a very challenging game during the later stages. Things start off easy enough, but once you reach the fifth or sixth stage, you'll begin to struggle mightily. Suddenly, speed laps require near-impossible precision in order to clear, and time trial events are so tightly timed that even a slight misstep will have you heading for the restart menu. Opponents get nastier as well, with competitors hitting more boost pads, taking tighter turns and becoming even deadlier with their weapons. You're given a choice at this point in the game to either buckle down and become an amazing racer, or throw up your hands in frustration and quit. I fear that many people may choose the latter.
Still, in spite of these minor flaws there is really absolutely no reason to not buy WipEout HD. It is beautiful, it is deep, and it is only $20. While some might say, "It's just a retread," WipEout HD is so much more, taking the previous two games in the series and fully realizing their potential, all while giving us a glimpse of things to come. I really can't recommend this game highly enough; if you aren't playing it yet, you should be.
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